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Softening up the hard core of truants

Many schools look upon poor attendance as the result of parental apathy or hostility to education and fear there is little they can do to change such attitudes. The Truancy and Disaffected Pupils Programme supported by Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) provides strong evidence to the contrary. Even in those disadvantaged areas where parents are said to be negative, individual schools and local authorities can and do improve irregular attendance and make imaginative and effective provision for "hard-core" non-attenders in Years 10 and 11.

The approaches used in these GEST projects include the use of information technology to monitor absences; improvements in training for the education welfare service; Truancy Watch and anti-bullying schemes; working with parents; schemes for "hard-core" non-attenders and whole school approaches.

The single, most effective way of improving attendance rates in the short-term in secondary schools seems to be the "same-day" response to absence, whether it is made by an education welfare officer or someone based in the school office. Attendance rates in schools where this happens often rise between 5 and l0 per cent, though predictably it has less effect on "hard-core" non-attenders.

More and more local authorities are concentrating on a preventive approach at the primary or early secondary stage. Much work at this level involves parents, particularly those of pupils judged to be "at risk". Transition from primary to secondary schooling is seen as a crucial time of adjustment for some pupils, with improved pastoral support for pupils in Years 6 and 7 being particularly effective.

In the medium term, a planned, whole-school approach has the most substantial impact upon rates of attendance: collecting and analysing information on absences rigorously, using the data to shape policy and practice (often, for example, relating it to pupils' levels of achievement), involving all staff and all aspects of school life , and using the expertise of the education welfare service.

Although measurable improvements may take longer to appear, most schools adopting a whole-school approach have evidence of an increase in general attendance levels and a decrease in unauthorised absences. Agreed procedures for monitoring pupil attendance followed by all staff are most effective in tackling the problem of post-registration truancy.

For "hard-core" non-attenders approaching the end of their statutory schooling, the "Bridge" model seems to hold out most hope. Three elements are common to most projects: * vocational training, often provided at a local further education college, and related work placements; * a basic skills curriculum, usually provided at the "Bridge" base; * a programme designed to promote personal and social skills, and to develop pupils' leisure interests.

Much of this teaching, including that in pupil referral units, tries to sustain pupils' entitlement by including elements of the national curriculum. But for pupils at this stage of secondary schooling, whose experience of the national curriculum is often associated with failure or boredom, a more radical approach may well increase their motivation and ability to "reconnect" with the education system after leaving school. Is such an approach justified and, if so, what relationship should it have to the national curriculum?

Many schools do not give enough attention to the content and approaches of teaching and learning that can help promote better attendance. Pupils are usually mature in their judgments about what sort of lessons they find interesting and valuable.

Much depends on how well any approach to tackling truancy is used. The cost-effectiveness of computers, for instance, seemed to depend upon good planning, training, analysis of data and acceptance in the school community.

Local authorities have an important role to play in providing figures to judge effectiveness and efficiency. Many LEAs are at an early stage in the difficult process of evaluating the effects of their projects, but those which have made progress are particularly valued by their schools.

Good management of attendance projects plays an important part in their effectiveness as does a school's readiness to see funds retained centrally by the LEA rather than delegated. There is also a need to develop better arrangements for disseminating good practice, both locally and nationally. None of this is helped by the current GEST funding by financial rather than academic year.

James Learmonth directed the evaluation project and the views in this article are his and not necessarily those of the Department for Education and Employment. Copies of the project report, "More Willingly to School?", including case studies of effective practice, are available from DFEE Publications and Despatch Centre, PO Box 6297, London E3 3NZ. Tel: 0171-510 0150

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